Looking at the World Through Jesus Goggles, or How Christians Inflate Their Personal Importance Because Jesus Loves Them

“God spoke out loud to Grandma when I was five to tell her to pray for me. I was chosen to be a missionary, and God told her that her prayers were essential to molding my heart to that service. Mom and Grandma fasted and prayed for me one day a week from then until I came back from my years of service in Africa.”

This was part of a Mother’s Day letter my uncle sent the extended family. He had a couple of other examples showing how his ultra-godly grandmother (my great-grandmother) impacted him, all because she had been told by God that he was special.

The letter made my mother cry. I thought that the tears were caused by a mixture overwhelming religious feeling and nostalgia for her mother and grandmother, both reasons I have seen tears trail down her cheeks, but Dad had a different take on her waterworks.

“Hell, no,” Dad told me. “She feels left out. God didn’t think she was special enough to talk to Grandma about her, and nobody fasted and prayed for her.” He rolled his eyes and sighed. “In a few days, maybe she’ll be angry, but right now, she’s just hurt.”

According to my uncle, my grandmothers did not tell him about their divine message or prayer and fasting until much later in the story so they didn’t influence his path or get in God’s way. Fair enough. I’ve read enough mythology, including the Christian Bible, to know changing any god’s plan is usually a mistake. It’s a rare tale where God steps back, looks around, and compliments someone on a plot twist they caused.

When my children were small and we attended church regularly, I had a friend who believed her elementary-age daughter had been chosen by God to become a lawyer in the coming culture wars. My friend had seen it in her prayers, and a Bible study about some of the bad girls of the Bible showed her that her young daughter’s “rebellious heart” was God preparing the girl to fight for Him instead of against him.

I never heard God’s plans for my friend’s sons, but I know about the summer camps and special attention the girl got because of her “future.” Since I no longer attend church, I am not up on the latest chatter, but the last I knew, the daughter was married to an accountant and staying home full-time with their children — and never had any interest in law school or religion.

My experience could be shrugged off as an anomaly. Two anecdotes are not proof-positive. I will happily concede that many Christians’ understanding of the gospel focuses more on servanthood and loving their neighbors as opposed to being specially chosen for a mission from God.

However…the idea that God loves each of us individually, knows how many hairs are on our head, and we are chosen to share that message by any means necessary is woven throughout modern Christianity. A look at American politics offers evidence (consider the Virginia legislature’s opening prayer, for instance) and the most recent blog post on Joel Osteen’s website.

God loves everyone, but some people just a smidgen more.

When people look at the world through Jesus goggles, they approach it with assumptions that other people may not have, which often leads to them being baffled when other people see a situation without those inherent biases.

For instance: we are all born sinners. Without even considering the specifics of “salvation,” the idea that even little babies are born not simply with the potential to sin, but already stained with sin is embedded in most branches of Christianity. Some denominations push that concept less fervently than others, but my fairly-liberal United Methodist Sunday school class had a very uncomfortable conversation about whether unbaptized babies who died would go to Heaven. The most strict understanding of salvation says that unbaptized babies cannot go to Heaven, and a majority of my former Sunday school class agreed with that.

Now consider what happens when that belief runs into a grieving parent. Or when Christians comfort anyone who has suffered a loss. Assuming that the deceased was “saved” by acknowledging Jesus as Savior is much kinder than assuming the deceased is in Hell…right? Never mind that the assumption includes the ideas that the grieving person believes in Heaven, Hell, being saved, and all the rest of the braided web of doctrine.

Consider how the belief that we are all sinners plays out when talking to LBGTQ, poly, or others who are outside of traditional gender, sex, or relationship norms. “You’re a sinner” sounds incredibly judgmental (and it is). However, it is a simple statement of fact for people who believe everyone is a sinner unless renouncing “evil” and “being saved.” In many Christian’s minds, telling someone he/she is a sinner may be the opening to a discussion about their faith, including the idea that everyone is born a sinner…but how many people stick around for the rest of the discussion after being judged?

Christian privilege leads to the assumption that everyone they talk with is familiar with Christian mindsets and doctrine even if they do not practice Christianity. When they say, “You’re a sinner,” they expect that non-Christian friends hear the unspoken part: “I was too, and we all are.” The idea that many of us do not know the Christian context — or we reject that belief set — apparently does not occur to the true believer — or at least, not to the ones who I have discussed this with.

And that leads back into why (some) Christians feel special, and may honestly not realize how self-aggrandizing they seem to people who are not viewing the world through Jesus goggles. My uncle has told me (and all of Facebook) that while Jesus was on the cross, the names of all the people he was dying to save was running through his mind. Knowing that Jesus was thinking of you, personally, specifically by name — how much more special could anyone be?

All that ties in with the email my uncle sent my family. Through his Jesus goggles, my uncle was sharing the wonderful work that he accomplished as part of God’s plan, which happened because of the faithful devotion of my great-grandma and my grandma. In my uncle’s view, it was a Mother’s Day email focusing on how hard those women worked and prayed to support him in fulfilling God’s plan.

God did not need my grandmas to pray and fast for my mom and aunt to be good mothers or employees, or for my uncles to be devoted husbands and hard workers. Nope, that’s the routine stuff. My uncle’s “homage” to his foremothers was, at its core, all about how special he was.

It has been more than a week since mom choked up telling me about my uncle’s letter. Dad was wrong; mom is not angry about the letter or the mindset behind it. Instead, she’s carrying a print-out of the letter around to remind herself to listen more closely to God in case there is someone “special” that she needs to support by regular prayer — -other than her children, her grandchildren, and all the rest of the crowd she prays for daily.

I am still pissed that my uncle made my mom cry, that his story made her feel less than chosen by God for special things. The fact that mom is wearing the same Jesus goggles and accepts that implication does not excuse my uncle’s myopia — just as Jesus goggles do not excuse Christians for assuming everyone shares their beliefs and assumptions about how God (for those who believe in god in any form) and the world works.

Now I am working on my Facebook post to let the world know how it is clear that God chose my mom for amazing things. And yes, she will cry again — but this time, they will be happy (and embarrassed) tears.

God Is (Not) Trying To Get My Attention

God is apparently trying to get my attention. There is a problem with that: I don’t believe He (or anything like the common concept of God) exists.

I grew up in the church. I spent my weekends playing guitar while my enthusiastic youth group sang, and I taught Sunday school classes for both adult and children. A large portion of my social life revolved around my church family. Going to church with my mom and sisters was an expectation that I never bucked, and my kids attended with me until they were nearly grown. Church was an important and special part of my life.

However, for much of the time, I was pretending. Searching, if that sounds better. Most of my friends accepted even egregious Biblical paradoxes and historical impossibilities as somehow true. I was told more than once to pray “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) so that God would replace my questions with faith. Even though I wanted to believe that God existed and cared about each person individually, I didn’t. Einstein might have said “God doesn’t play dice with the universe,” and Jung claimed there were no coincidences, but…well,…those blithe quotes had contexts that were not nearly as breezy.

Even when I “believed,” I didn’t accept that God cared what I studied in college or whether I wore jeans to worship service. I was appalled at the idea that having cancer would be blessing from God in any way, and I was baffled at the assertion that a blizzard that trapped my youth group in another state was God’s plan for saving people the strangers we witnessed to strangers who took us in — all things my friends could positively applaud as God in action.

As I got older and studied more, learning more about mythology, other religions, the origin of the Christian Bible and my own denomination, I accepted that I did not even believe there is sentient force advocating for us, a proto-God, especially not an anthropomorphized, we are built-in-His-image sentient being. Reading about goddesses and the feminine divine did not expand the concept of “God” enough to reassure me that God’s in heaven — which, incidentally, I do not believe in, either.

I continued attending my church, however. I liked the people there, and I felt good about many of the socially-oriented ministries it sponsored. I played devil’s advocate in study groups and represented the liberal interpretations of faith in my Sunday school class without telling them that I didn’t actually believe any of it. One minister approached me about my “crisis in faith,” but overall, staying in the church was easier than admitting to myself and others that I did not believe God existed, not even in the remote “intelligent designer” sense. I was comfortable pretending that I was searching.

But the last few years, changes in the church, society, and myself made it clear that I had to be honest. When I left the church, I lost a community — people I had been close to for much of my life — because their social lives and mine did not intersect outside of a church context, and none of us made the effort to build a non-faith-based friendships. My social life and my connection with my community as a whole suffered because I quit pretending.

That leads me to the odd experience I had last week. While driving home from a solitary out of town shopping trip. I was throwing a serious pity party for myself about how few friendships I have, the type of friends who you make plans with, have traditions and regular events with. I have people for dinner, and friends who are there if I need someone, but this is the first time in my life that I have not had a tribe, for lack of a better word.

Anyway, I was deep in feeling sorry for myself while driving, and I was considering if I should go back to Sunday school, with the caveat that I don’t believe, but I basically care about the people. I was thinking about whether Sunday school would make a difference in my social connectiveness, when my phone rang.

It was my Sunday School teacher. I haven’t talked to her in nearly a year. The class is going out for dinner in two weeks, and they wanted to make sure I was invited. I immediately said I will be there, and we chatted for about a half hour.

If I had any inkling of religion left, I would see the timing as divine intervention. As I was considering whether I need to return to church for social reasons, my phone rang and it was my church. I’m still amused by the coincidence.

But there are no coincidences — that was drilled into me for years. Everything that happens is God trying to communicate with us. Decades of indoctrination and quasi-belief do not fade easily, but at this point, I can appreciate amusing irony without feeling the hand of God slipping into my head. Or so I thought.

Then yesterday I was driving home again, and I clicked on my podcast app to hear the next Freakonomics podcast in the series I was listening to. Apparently I misclicked in the dark at a stop light and choose a pagan podcast by mistake. It was short, entertaining and thoughtful, so I kept it on. As I pulled into my driveway, the hosts of the podcast closed with what they called their guiding principle: There are no coincidences.

At this point, any of my Christian friends would emphatically argue that God is trying to get a message to me. Some of my “spiritual but not-quite-Christian” friends would probably agree. My couple of pagan/New Age friends would earnestly suggest that I draw the energy I need towards me, so even if I do not want to attend church, I may need those people in my life.

But what do I believe? Years of experience, research and thought is not canceled out by an ironically timed phone call during an isolated pity party. There is no Charleton-Heston-esque whisper luring me back to the faithful flock. Deciding I believed again, or even allowing myself the easy luxury of pretending to believe again, would have some psychological pay-off. Sinking into the structure of Sunday morning church, maybe even joining a church choir — that would be easy, and I have faked it before. The story of my faith being renewed by a phone call would light up my congregation, or a new congregation if I changed churches (which, as a former United Methodist, I would have to do because of their current LBGTQ issues). I could be an inspirational anecdote!

But..I do not have the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart, and I do not believe the B-I-B-L-E is the book for me. Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt is a terrific morality tale, but impossible. And me walking into a church as if I’m returning back to my true faith…that is not happening either, despite a phone call inviting me to dinner.